Obama needs to act on marriage promotion

A Bush-era program aimed at lifting people out of poverty through voluntary education on marriage deserves renewal.

Americans have a major mismatch in their matchmaking.

More than 8 out of 10 young adults say it is important to be married someday. Most expect they will be hitched within 10 years. Yet last year, there were 7.1 marriages per 1,000 people compared with 10 per 1,000 in 1986. And the numbers keep rising for children born out of wedlock and for unmarried couples living together.

And these trends continue despite research showing that children living with single mothers or with cohabiting parents are more likely to drop out of school and to be poor than children living with their married parents.

What to do?

For the past few years, the federal government has tried to bridge this gulf between good intentions toward marriage and the reality. It offers seminar-type "marriage promotion" classes, aimed especially at training those on welfare for healthy relationships. And last February, the federally supported National Healthy Marriage Resource Center launched a $5 million media campaign to extoll the virtues of matrimony for people aged 18 to 30. (The campaign's slogan: "Friend me forever.")

It's not clear, however, if Uncle Sam can successfully play the role of premarital counselor. Governments can barely persuade people to use their seat belts, let alone appreciate all the virtues of matrimony. Many religious groups are better at teaching the moral basis of marriage.

At the least, however, this federally funded training – which aims to improve communication skills – may prepare more couples for married life beyond love at first sight and may save many couples from resorting to divorce.

The "healthy marriage" program began in 2005 with Congress committing $100 million a year for five years (and another $50 million a year to promote fatherhood). But now as that program runs out, a number of Democrats on Capitol Hill, backed by a lobby that backs alternative lifestyles, are trying to end the funding. They see the program as a Bush-era relic and as a conservative cause or an unnecessary federal hand in a private matter.

Fortunately, President Obama is a fan of marriage education workshops, when they are offered on a voluntary basis. His current budget proposes to keep the funding – although it remains unknown how much he will fight for it.

In his book, "The Audacity of Hope," Mr. Obama wrote: "Policies that strengthen marriage for those who choose it and that discourage unintended births outside of marriage are sensible goals to pursue."

As a child of divorce, Obama knows marriage is not the sole answer to lifting Americans out of poverty. But if enough people ask for such government assistance, they deserve it. The president needs to take a stronger stand on behalf of this program before it slips away quietly in Congress.

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